Beyond the standardized, cookie-cutter approach in higher education

happy students throwing mortar boards up
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As a new academic year approaches in Jordan, over 64,000 high school graduates have submitted their university applications across the country. No doubt, traditional majors, like engineering, medicine, and pharmacy, will be on the top of the wish list for the bulk of the new batch of college-bound students. This year, however, a significant segment will be heading towards new majors, hoping to distinguish themselves in the job market from the crowds that graduate each year with increasingly redundant degrees awarded in old cookie-cutter programs.  اضافة اعلان

These new majors offer new hope and opportunities for both incoming and graduating university students. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research has been actively encouraging all universities to rethink and update their existing programs, all to better ready our graduates for the labor market, both in Jordan and abroad. This means redesigning and establishing programs that emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and soft skills gained through the practical application of theory. It also means developing programs that work on closing serious conceptual gaps that have been created by the rote-memorization approach cultivated through the tawjihi system of education. 

The most profound gap that needs to be closed is teaching students not what, but how to read, write, and think. These are highly transferable skills that never become outdated or confined to a particular body of knowledge. In a fast-paced, globalized world, having the ability to formulate the right questions, do research and offer solutions to emerging problems is the key to success in any field of study.

Updating English language and literature
Recently, I have been involved in updating one of the most redundant BA programs in the country, “English language and literature”, which is offered in every university in nearly identical ways in Jordan since it was first established at the University of Jordan in 1962.

My colleagues would often remark that the very same classes they took as undergraduates, like “English literature from 1850” or “English literature to 1660”, they were still required to teach. This is not to say that these classic or traditional subjects do not have merit and value; indeed, I believe, they do. The problem is that their value gets diminished by the fact that there are no other approaches towards this important major.

Like a cookie cutter, each year, every graduate from every university gets basically the same degree in order to enter the same job market. This is the very definition of saturation and stagnation in any field.

In the development of the updated program, we undertook a thorough market study and found that while there was a glut of English language and literature students in Jordan’s job market, conceptual and skill-based gaps left open a real demand for individuals with effective communication skills in English who are attuned to Jordan’s cultural beliefs, values, and norms.

The old cookie-cutter approach towards this field left out courses that would hone technical and creative writing skills, and that are essential to being able to use language strategically and meaningfully to develop effective oral, written, and visual messages, stories, and texts. In other words, the old English language and literature programs effectively steered their graduates away from meeting job market needs.

AUM’s approach
In the update undertaken at the American University of Madaba (AUM), the English Language & Literature program was reimagined as “English Language, Culture & Communication” (ELCC). In this approach to the BA program, generic courses have been brought up to date and made more relevant. For example, “Grammar I” was replaced with “Copyediting & Copying Writing”, and “Phonetics I” was retooled to become “Spoken & Written Text in Context”. This renovation of the entire study plan aimed to retain the fundamental knowledge areas of the field, but with a fresh, practical, and highly transferable skill-based approach to their application. 

Another innovation in ELCC’s study plan is that students will be able to take up to five elective courses in specialized areas, including Arabic-English translation, design and visual communication, and classic literature. Moreover, ELCC students will be required to complete a field training course for a semester, giving them the opportunity to interact with professional industries and organizations before graduation.

Most importantly, throughout the entire program, students are encouraged to develop their own unique CV, based on their individual talents and interests, so that our students, our "cookies", stand out from the rest.

More to be done
The experience of developing the updated program made me realize that hope is out there, but much more can be done to break the standard, cookie-cutter approach towards higher education in Jordan.

One day soon, I hope, students will be able to apply to universities based on their achievements beyond a single standardized test score and have the option to apply to any major that genuinely interests them. I also hope they will be able to undertake double majors and minors, and that universities will completely phase out or dramatically revise the existing saturated majors and replace them with unique, interdisciplinary programs. 

Much work is to be done on multiple fronts, today and in the future. We need graduates who are prepared to do it.

Christina Zacharia Hawatmeh, PhD Sociology, is an Assistant Professor at the American University of Madaba, Jordan. She is the chair of both the Department of English Language, Culture & Communication and Department of Translation (

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